407 Letter from Woolcott to Fraser

Jakarta, 28 January 1976


East Timor

I very much regret that our cable O.JA3981 was leaked to the Canberra Times by some disloyal and misguided official.1

Equally, I regret that other newspapers indulged in their own interpretations of those paragraphs of the cable published in the Canberra Times.

I also regret very much any embarrassment the leak my have caused you and the Government.

The leak has of course caused me personally and members of this Embassy embarrassment here and it has exposed me to some public criticism in Australia, including criticism from two Opposition Members of Parliament, Senator Primmer and Mr Fry,2 against which I am not in a position, as a public servant, to defend myself publicly however ill-founded some of the criticism might be. It has also to my surprise prompted a number of letters of support from individuals in Australia whom I do not know saying these things should be said.

The suggestion I resent most, however, is that I have in some way been representing Indonesia's interests rather than Australia's interests here. (Senator Primmer's comment and a cartoon in The Age)3 An Ambassador is, of course, obliged to ensure that his Government understands fully the attitude of the Government to which he is accredited on issues of mutual interest. I have of course done this. But I have put the Australian Government's views here firmly on many occasions since my arrival in March and I lower my colours to no-one as a representative of my own country and its interests abroad, as defined by the Government of the day.

I must also admit that my professional pride has been somewhat unsettled by reading headlines such as 'Woolcott gets public rap over knuckles from Fraser' (The Age of 19 January) and 'Prime Minister rejects envoy's advice' (Sydney Morning Herald of same date).4

The point which I believe should be emphasised in such circumstances—and which in fact I made in the leaked cable—is that it is for the Government, not officials, to decide Australian policy towards Indonesia.You are reported to have made this point. I think emphasis should be given to the fact that it is the duty of an Australian Head of Mission to tender to the Government the most competent, objective and frank advice he or she can. I believe I have done so. I believe you would expect no less from me.

In fact you put these sentiments admirably, ifl might say so, in your interview with Peter Cross published in the Australian of 17 January in which you stated that you wanted senior public servants to put their views strongly and that you wanted them to give impartial advice regardless of what they considered your personal attitudes to be. I have always done so. But one has a right to expect protection of this advice from unauthorised and possibly damaging public disclosure.

I also believe that it is the duty of an Ambassador to bring the realities as he or she sees them of any situation, even if they are unpalatable, to the notice of his government so that a government can make its decisions with these realities in mind. Many international problems have arisen in the past because slogans or emotions have led governments to take decisions not based on realities and which have led, in some cases, to governments painting themselves into comers from which they have been unable to emerge for some time.

Incidentally, I stand by the advice in the cable which is in fact the agreed and considered view of the Political Section of this Embassy. The basic assessments in the cable are also shared by all of our well-informed diplomatic colleagues in Jakarta, including the American, Japanese, Malaysian, Singaporean and New Zealand Ambassadors and, perhaps strangely, even the Soviet Ambassador.

The crux of this advice was in paragraph 11 of the cable, a paragraph which was not leaked. This is that notwithstanding the matters of principle involved and however unjust it may seem, the realities on which any Australian Government now needs to base its policy assumptions are that, whatever the difficulties, Indonesia is committed to the incorporation of Portuguese Timor and will proceed to secure this objective.

Whatever public position the Government might choose to adopt—and I know the Government could not now adopt such a position publicly at a time when the Winspeare Mission is still in progress and when it is publicly committed to an act of self-determination which it would be wrong to prejudge—I believe I would be doing you, Mr Peacock and the Department, a disservice if I were to suggest that Indonesia would accept or permit, at this stage, any other outcome. The best we can hope for and press for is that this outcome will be reached through an acceptable act of self-determination.

I am sending copies of this letter personally to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and to the Permanent Head of my Department.

I am aware of the demands on your time and I do not expect you to answer this letter. But I did want to record my views on this matter.

I look forward to your visit and hope that satisfactory arrangements can be made for you to come to Bali next month.5

[NAA: Al0463, 801/13/1111, xx]